How To Pack Diabetes: My Semester Abroad

Nathan Finberg, Tufts University ‘17

The world is full of bustling cities, unique cultures, and delicious food. For many, deciding where to go might be the most difficult part of the trip. For those of us with type 1 diabetes (T1D), there are a few more things we have to consider when making the decision to study abroad.

I chose to spend this past spring in Milan, Italy, and it was one of the best choices I’ve made in college. Not only that, but I learned quite a bit about the ins and outs of traveling with T1D.

For starters, in picking your location, you should not feel limited by your condition, but it might be important to consider the resources to which you’ll have access. If you are choosing to visit a remote location like an Amazonian village in Brazil, you may have to make some serious pre-departure plans. My strategy was relatively straightforward: call the insurance company and secure six months of supplies. Most insurance companies are quite understanding of the situation and will happily comply. This way, you don’t have to find a doctor, make several visits, and set up an entire system once you reach your destination (though it is a good idea to alert your study abroad program and to ask them for a number in case of emergencies).

In terms of traveling with your supplies, it is not terribly difficult. I made sure I had a couple copies of a doctor’s note tucked away in my suitcase(s) so no one would wrongfully confuse my pump supplies with suspicious contraband. I also recommend keeping your all of your insulin and at least a few diabetes and pump supplies in your backpack (like needles, pump sites, etc). You don’t want a six-month supply of insulin to become lost in transit and have nothing on hand! You can ask the flight attendant to keep your insulin in the fridge (or just ask for more ice on the plane) to keep it from spoiling. Most short trips won’t require this, but for the initial and final flights, it is a good idea.

Once you’ve successfully landed, the hardest part is over (that is, unless you are directionally challenged like I am, and have trouble finding your homestay apartment). Make sure that if you have a significant time change that you do not update your pump settings until your body has adjusted after a few days, but do make sure to change the time on your pump (something I learned from experience). If you’re traveling to a place where English is not commonly spoken, make sure you know how to ask for help. It’s also good to know the words for simple food and diabetes terms in your new home language. That will come in handy at least once, guaranteed.

Studying abroad is unlike anything you’ll ever do again. You will see the world from a fresh lens, enjoy meeting new people, and again, the food will no doubt be incredible. (I know it was in Italy). Don’t let Diabetes hold you back: I was able to travel almost every weekend, ski in the Alps, eat my bodyweight in pasta, and hike in Norway. As long as you are cognizant of your body’s needs, you can and should hop on that plane and discover the world.